A Tale of Two (Too Unsung) Tenors -- Saxophone Tenors, That Is

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Bill McHenry and Michael Blake are both tenor saxophonists in their 40s who play with imagination beyond convention—and ought to be known more widely. October brings brilliant recordings from both.

Bill McHenry

La Peur du Vide

Label: Sunnyside
US Release Date: 2012-10-30
UK Release Date: Import

Michael Blake

In the Grand Scheme of Things

Label: Songlines
US Release Date: 2012-10-09
UK Release Date: 2012-10-09

October brings two very different and very wonderful releases by tenor saxophonists in their 40s who are both extremely accomplished and too little known. Bill McHenry and Michael Blake are not anonymous to serious fans, but don’t hold your breath until they get signed to Blue Note.

This is common in jazz, a discipline in which the highest degree of creativity is often met with some indifference. Few jazz musicians become stars, and idiosyncratic playing isn’t the golden ticket. But it's to be cherished, nonetheless. And McHenry’s La Peur du Vide and Blake’s In the Grand Scheme of Things are collections worth celebrating.

Playing jazz middle age is a glorious time—a time when a player is rich with ideas and mature enough to know his or her real identity. McHenry and Blake are using the middle of their careers to make bracing personal statements that stake a claim to greatness. They are reminders to keep our ears open every day.

Bill McHenry and La Peur du Vide

McHenry was born in 1972 and moved to New York in 1992, where he got work with legends and contemporaries alike: Paul Motian, John McNeill, and Guillermo Klein, but also Ben Monder and Reid Anderson. He was booked as a leader at the Village Vanguard in 2003, and he was recording for Fresh Sound even before that in 1998. Just making it as a jazz player in New York means you are cream of the crop, but it’s also scary how easy it has been not to single McHenry out of a scene rife with Chris Potter and Joe Lovano and James Carter, to name just a few.

But McHenry’s latest, La Peur du Vide seems likely to change all that. La Peur is a perfect balance of modern tradition and daring adventure—a live date from the Village Vanguard that features an ideally balanced quartet and showcases a tenor talent who fuses technique, tone, and captivating quirk.

The opening track, “Siglo XX”, comes out of the gate like Coltrane from the mid-'60s, with pianist Orrin Evans rocking a modal vamp and McHenry pushing out a steely tone that ripens in its upper register and growls down low. And while there are clearly moments when McHenry is purposefully calling back to ‘Trane, he more often works his improvisation with a mathematical care and spare concision that is the opposite of Coltrane. McHenry seems to be serving notice in two ways at once: this is a player straight from the modern tradition but also defiantly individual.

The band on this first track stakes a claim, too. Evans bashes and swings at the same time, unaware that he isn’t the leader. Eric Revis on bass acts as an engine, while veteran drummer Adrew Cyrille seems rejuvenated. Cyrille is endlessly inventive as an accompanist, constantly listening to the rhythms that are stated or even implied in the improvisations. Revis is rock-solid and rich as a redwood in tone, and Evans moves from his best McCoy Tyner imitation to something stratospheric—with the his right hand getting increasingly abstract and fragmented until it explodes in a frenzy of pianistic shrapnel.

McHenry is also a crafty player who goes in different directions. The ballad “Today” is played almost entirely straight, with no “solos”—just the beautiful melody played in an upper octave and then a lower octave. It is, effectively, a pop ballad (and one apparently inspired but the music of Stevie Wonder). Here, McHenry softens and airs out his tone, crying in his upper register gently and breathless down low. Then there is a hybrid tune like “In Sight” that begins with gruff and free banging and fluurries but then transitions into a bouncing swing constantly on the verge of unraveling.

McHenry’s title track works its way in and out of ballad tempo, with the pulse evaporating for long sections, including a magical tenor solo that is as unflinchingly melodic and listenable as it is utterly free. What impresses most fully about McHenry is how he manages to perform outside of convention and still sound clean and beautiful. When he plays without following standard harmonic conventions, his playing doesn’t become ragged or unintentional. Instead, makes brilliant, surprising decisions. But they are decisions nonetheless, made with design in mind.

Photo from Bill

In McHenry’s other work, these same qualities come through. His quartet work with trumpeter John O’Neill (such as 2008’s wonderful Rediscovery on Sunnyside) reaches back to many cool jazz structures from the '50s and unearths ebullient freedom. And Live at Smalls (2007) by a quartet with Ethan Iverson on piano, Reid Anderson on bass (both from The Bad Plus) and drummer Jeff Williams reworks standards as varied as “Night and Day”, “You’ve Changed”, and “The Look of Love”.

In all of this mature work, McHenry plays beyond category—utterly informed by structure and technique yet wily enough to take the listener on a roller coaster ride through his (sometimes) lunatic musical imagination. If you aren’t already a McHenry fan, well, now is the time to get on board.

Michael Blake and In the Grand Scheme of Things

Blake is a completely different player than McHenry, but he’s equally worth discovering. And the case that he should be “big” is even more compelling.

Blake was born in Montreal in 1964 and ultimately grew up in Vancouver, where an eclectic jazz scene is beautifully entrenched. But he had made it to New York by the late '80s, where he started playing with John Lurie’s band The Lounge Lizards. And Blake’s sensibility fits that eclectic downtown vibe. His dozen recordings as a leader include electric guitar, contributions from jazz wildcard Steve Bernstein as well as the group known as the Jazz Composers Collective (such as bassist Ben Allison), and plenty of mad eclecticism. Blake’s first recording as a leader was produced by no less a figure than Teo Macero, Miles Davis’s famed producer—and Kingdom of Champa seemed like the first volley from a future jazz star, featuring Vietnamese-flavored themes composed by Blake for a mad ensemble of vibes, flute, slide trumpet, distorted guitar, tuba, and of course his own tenor saxophone, which can move from feathered breathiness to ripe pungency.

Blake never became well known, but he never settled down, either. His latest, In the Grand Scheme of Things, is on the Vancouver-based Songlines Recordings, and it features a hometown band of Chris Gestrin on keyboards (including a brilliantly-played mini-Moog bass), Dylan van der Schyff on drums, and JP Carter on trumpet. Grand Scheme keeps the band small but its range very wide. “Road to Lusaka” starts things with an atmospheric nod to Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis, but there is also the swinging boppishness of “Cybermonk”, with its walking synth-bass line and long tenor solo that demonstrates how good Blake is at making himself at home in the jazz tradition, even if it is with a wink.

Blake gets incredible range from his band here. Carter has a ripe sound. On “The Searchers” there is a moment where he sounds like a bright-toned Mexican mariachi player even as he blends back into the rhythm groove with a whisper behind a Fender Rhodes wash from Gestrin. The keyboard player is brilliant here (as well as being the recording’s engineer), a wonderful orchestrator with his Rhodes and a haunting presence with that bass-synth sound, which creeps around the edges of every song like a shadow. And van der Schyff is, as always, a full-band drummer who plays time and texture with equal attention.

Blake’s sound has chameleon-like range. On his sunny original “Big Smile”, he mostly plays with a bright sound in the upper register, but at a moment’s notice he can let his tone attractively fray. “A View from Oblivion” has the opposite atmosphere, however: ominous and foreboding, which inspires Blake to reach for overtones in his upper register, ripples and cascades of air, mid-range growls, and altissimo cries. And how about “Treat Her Right”, an Otis Redding soul classic that sets up a slow drag groove in 12/8? Blake gleefully plays that tune with notes that bend downward in blues drips, keeping his jazz chops in check like a good soul player should—like Hank Crawford on a late night gig in front of a heavy B3 sound.

* * *

Pairing two players and two albums in this column suggests comparison, but that is precisely not the point. Receiving the issues of Downbeat each year that contain the jazz “reader’s poll” and “critics poll” that rank musicians on each instrument is always painful.

McHenry and Blake are different musicians utterly, but both are artists in a single tradition and from the same generation, both of whom ought to be atop one poll or another. Art flowers so beautifully, springing up where and when it must. And so October of 2012 finds these two jazz tenor saxophonists offering beautiful stuff for our ears. It’s a reason to have a party or at least write a column.

Bill McHenry and Michael Blake: not one better than the other, but also neither of them any less great than Joshua Redman or Branford Marsalis or even Sonny Rollins. Keep your ears open for it all.

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